Depressed overweight man on bed at home

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CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Just one month of feeling depressed can quickly lead to weight gain, a new study warns. While the link between depression and weight gain has been recognized for some time, study authors say the specifics of how they affect each other have been unclear until now.

However, researchers from the United Kingdom only observed this effect in individuals who were already overweight, with comfort eating or lack of exercise as possible contributing factors. The team from the University of Cambridge analyzed data from 2,000 adults living in Cambridgeshire. These participants used a mobile app to complete monthly questionnaires about mental well-being and body weight for nine months during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021.

Apps on our phones make it possible for people to answer short questions at home more frequently and over extended periods of time, which provides much more information about their well-being,” says the study’s senior author, Dr. Kirsten Rennie from the MRC Epidemiology Unit, in a media release. “This technology could help us understand how changes in mental health influence behavior among people with overweight or obesity and offer ways to develop timely interventions when needed.”

Overweight man with obesity stressed, tired, having a headache
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The findings reveal that for each incremental increase in an individual’s usual score for depressive symptoms, their weight a month later rose by 45 grams on average. This means that an individual whose depressive symptoms score increased from mild to moderate would typically see a weight gain of 225 grams (about half-a-pound).

Overweight individuals experienced an average weight increase of 52 grams for each incremental rise in depressive symptoms, while those dealing with obesity saw an average weight gain of 71 grams. This effect was not observed in individuals of a healthy weight or in response to anxiety and stress symptoms.

“Overall, this suggests that individuals with overweight or obesity are more vulnerable to weight gain in response to feeling more depressed. Although the weight gain was relatively small, even small weight changes occurring over short periods of time can lead to larger weight changes in the long-term, particularly among those with overweight and obesity,” adds first author Dr. Julia Mueller.

“People with a high BMI are already at greater risk from other health conditions, so this could potentially lead to a further deterioration in their health. Monitoring and addressing depressive symptoms in individuals with overweight or obesity could help prevent further weight gain and be beneficial to both their mental and physical health.”

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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South West News Service writer Isobel Williams contributed to this report.

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